18 July 2012 by Catherine Baksi
MPs to probe interpreter deal
A high-profile parliamentary committee has launched an inquiry into the controversial deal between the Ministry of Justice and the private company contracted to provide court interpreters.
The Justice Select Committee today launched a call for written evidence to examine the service provided by Applied Language Solutions and the process by which it was selected.
It will seek to explore six areas:
1. The rationale for changing arrangements for the provision of interpreter services.
2. The nature and appropriateness of the procurement process.
3. The experience of courts and prisons in receiving interpretation services that meet their needs.
4. The nature and effectiveness of the complaints process.
5. The steps that have been taken to rectify under-performance and the extent to which they have been effective.
6. The appropriateness of arrangements for monitoring the management of the contract, including the quality and cost-effectiveness of the service delivered.
The Oldham-based business was made sole supplier of interpreters for the courts in England and Wales following a competitive tender last year. Its tender was £50m less than the next cheapest bid.
The contract was intended by the MoJ to save £18m a year, cutting translating costs by nearly a third. That target was cut to £12m - a figure that justice minister Lord McNally admitted last week ‘will probably not be achieved’ in the first year of the contract.
Under the contract, courts request interpreters from a list of freelance interpreters who have agreed to work for the fixed rates paid by Applied.
Before the new contract, courts contacted interpreters directly using the contact details on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters, and were paid hourly rates or rates they negotiated with the courts.
Many freelance interpreters have refused to work for Applied, citing concerns over an alleged lack of qualifications required to work for the company, and over the low pay rates, which they say attract inexperienced and poorly qualified people. Applied maintains that all the interpreters it uses are sufficiently qualified.
The new arrangements, in force since the end of January, have been dogged by problems, with solicitors and judges complaining that interpreters have not turned up, have turned up late, or have not been able to do the job.
Performance data provided to the MoJ by Applied showed that three months into the contract the company had not met its 98% performance target, but had provided interpreters in 81% of cases. During the period 2,232 complaints relating to requests had been made.
The MoJ described the initial difficulties as ‘teething problems’ but said the situation has now improved.
In May the Gazette reported that the committee was likely to enquire further into the contract, after it questioned the head of court services Peter Handcock about matters, including the operation and cost of the interpreter contract.
Committee chair Sir Alan Beith told the Gazette: 'We have heard anecdotal evidence about what is happening around the country, but we don't know how that is supported. We need to get proper evidence.'
He said that when Handcock appeared before the committee, he had given assurances that the contract contained sufficient provisions to enforce compliance with its requirements and that there are sufficient penalty provisions.
But he said: 'Nothing much seems to have happened regarding the contract management'.
'By the autumn there will have been sufficient time to see if the contract is capable of settling down. We are not pre-judging the issue,' he said.
The deadline for submissions is Monday 3 September.